Let’s get straight to the point.
Metal Box is ultimate full stop and still one of the most astonishing records ever released.
That glorious triumvirate of Lydon, Wobble and Levene created something so shining and so magical that it still sounds futuristic to this day as it did when released on Nov 23rd 1979. The deluxe edition includes rare and unreleased mixes from the recording sessions, along with B-sides and BBC sessions, plus a live recording from a now legendary unplanned show at Factory Records Russell Club in Manchester arranged on the day of a Granada TV appearance.
Somehow they managed to make a record that tied up so many loose ends that were spiralling around the fringes of punk and pre punk underground and yet looked into the future all at once. Over the years they have inevitably fallen out or grown apart but for a couple of years somehow the three of them managed to contain their distinctly very different personalities into a perfect alchemy and create a music where each voice got heard – and in that glorious post punk way with them all playing or singing lead at the same time. It could sound like almost like three different songs going on at the same time and yet worked perfectly as they broke down rock music and the straightjacket of verse /chorus /middle eight into strong and hypnotic pieces of music.
In many ways Metal Box was the perfect distillation of what punk was REALLY about. Before it had became an actual musical style, it was an aural adventure where anything was possible and many of the loose threads that fed into its bricolage soundtrack were there to be explored. Dub, disco, Motornik, Beefheart, Van Der Graaf Generator were all in the mix – Lydon’s famous playlist on his 1977 Capital radio appearance is arguably the moment that PiL started and by extension post punk and he whole road map out of the sound and fury.
In the middle of the punk wars he played Can, some rare soul, Tim Buckley, Peter Hammill, Captain Beefheart’s The Blimp, Nico, John Cale and of course, lots of reggae. When Rotten plays the dub b-side by Culture (the track with the lopping bass, barking dogs, crying babies and blaring car horns) you can hear the blueprint for the PiL sound that would come along just a few months later.
Metal Box caught the fear and paranoia and cynicism of the post punk fallout perfectly – this was the soundtrack to the dark and oppressive vibe at Lydon’s Gunter Grove flat but this was also the mash of the surrounding great music – the deep dub, disco, funk and then Can and German underground, there was also, still, somehow, some of the DNA of the Pistols in there. The Pistols of Submission maybe and the stark voice of Lydon himself but twisted into stage and compelling new shapes as it intoned his brilliant and vivid lyrics around the soundscapes created by Wobble’s unnatural eternal dub bass – still one of the greatest sounds known to man and Levene’s shrapnel twisted molten guitar shapes – where the guitar sound like nothing else – those mid teen years of being the road for Yes were not wasted.
There is also mischief here – plenty of acidic humour amongst the attractive gloom and the post punk melancholy and a surprising amount of melody – maybe Keith’s love of the Beatles was also in the mix?
Back in the mists of time when this wonderful album was released it became turntable glue. Immersed in its experience we would play it endlessly, lost inside its strange and fastening and damp dub disco world. The box was the greatest sleeve ever – a compact box that I still have with coffee stains, a few dents and the burn marks earned by its days of being a drugs tin.
The heavy bass end meant that we would have to put a piece of plastence on the record player needle to stop it bouncing over the record and then we lay there in the dark, lights out, in alerted states and let the magic do its thing.
A couple of years ago I had the honour of doing ad libbed vocals to a Levene/Wobble take on the wonderful album. The idea was to take the songs and twist them through Miles Dvaies Bitches Brew/Agharta soundscape. In the one rehearsal Wobble was the rock and his shuddering bass the timeless spine. He told me to watch Keith’s fingers as you could not work out where the sound came from and true enough when Keith’s guitar finally came in on a twenty minute version of Poptones his fingers seemed to dance above the strings and this hypnotic sound came out. Pure magic. It was like a wizard’s electricity was coming out of his digits.
This combination between the three of them managed to find a new way in the midst of the punk fallout. Fantastically indulged by Virgin Records who beautiful believed that John Lydon was a new kind of Bowie visionary figure who as going to lead a merry shape shifting dance away from the wreckage of punk, PiL were given plenty of space for their adventures.
At the time Lydon was on a creative high – Mclaren may have sneered that after the Pistols that Lydon wanted to be poet but lyrically the young singer was at the top of his game on those early PiL albums Every line is acidic and perfect and full of stark and terrifying imagery and are also acidic and darkly funny. His voice is already stretching out beyond rock n roll and its micro range and into middle eastern muezzin and freeing itself from the shackles of rock n roll itself and its micro melodies that suffocate so many of its songs. This is a voice that is pitched high and free and goes where it wants. It really should not work but it works perfectly.
The year before and PiL’s debut album had been sneered at but we loved it . Its stark landscapes creating a new kind of wall of sound of punk but constructed out of completely different bricks. It was like punk rock rebuilt in the wrong order by mad scientists. There were the stunning avalanche dirges to get lost in like Theme, songs of the wretched car crash of Sid like Annalysia and even the sneering, funny Fodderstmp which was a misfit track at the time but a harbinger to the death disco of Metal Box itself.
Of course their was the shuddering and anthemic Public Image single itself -a false alarm – a punk rock classic that is still one of the great singles – I remember buying this at Cobweb records from Cleveleys the day it came out from a sprightly young shop assistant called Jeff Smith who know runs BBC Radio 2!
I got them to play the single in the shop and the rumbling bass line and that chiming guitar were like the greatest rush of aural amphetamine – you could sense that this was the door opening and an escape route from the suffocation of punk that had been found – when the debut album came out months later PiL were taking you on a trip.
Metal Box, though, was another giant leap forward and its perfect soundscapes sound eternal to this day. Albatross was another of their great dirges but with a killer groove – a simple leaden downbeat disco drum beat from Levene played whilst the band tried to find drummer who would work with them that didn’t mind being set on fire or put up with their madness.
The song seems to be about ditching the past – the dead weight of the Pistols myth – punk, of course, had become something so very different when it started but after the Bill Grundy interview it became crushed into a black hole of tabloid reporting and became belch instead of a dayglo rush of ideas but it had also still thrilled and invigorated so many of my generation in ways that the progenitors could never understand.
Memories was the first single – it’s like an attempt to distill the album’s elixir into an alchemical pop and in our world works perfectly. A sprightly disco pulse that switches shapes in the middle with a ruthless edit – a razor blade across tape in the deep night maybe and another opportunity where the studio and the mixing desk was also utilised as an instrument. Memories is a song where the then young Lydon sounds fantastically ancient and full of the acidic wisdom that was once his calling card. Swan Lake is a nod to the classical where a part of the spilling guitar figure in the song came from and is a rework of their dark second single Death Disco – criss crossing rthyhms and a bass rumble to offset the off the scale guitar give plenty of space for Lydon to wail his personal grief at his mother’s death – a post punk emotional skree like Lennon’s Mother from the decade before -a deeply personal moment in the middle of the punk fallout. Even the word disco was full of confrontation – somehow it had become punk’s enemy whilst many of the leading players were criss crossing it’s beat into the noise and confusion.
Poptones is perhaps the album’s masterpiece – a chiming and relentless piece that could go on for ever as it circles itself around that curling bass line and one of Keith’s ultimate chiming guitar shapes. Lydon immerses himself in a dark scenario – a fragment of a terrifying story – a woman has been raped and is lying in the ‘foliage and peat’ with the numbing chime of pop music playing on the car stereo in the background. It’s a nightmare vision played out to a song that feels damp and terrifying.
Careering is perfectly futuristic – one of Wobblr’s great bass figures – a relentless piece – constructed around his eternal love of writing riffs around shapes on the bass fretboard – triangles and squares that are made to make musical sense – Keith gets out his collection of sythns and breaks away from the guitar to create a wash of sound that captures the stark tension of the border of maybe Ireland at the time.
No Birds is a damning indictment of the suburban boredom that punk was running away from. Musically its churning shapes are the closest to the band’s debut album and the song threatens to collapse into different directions at any moment but like so much of Metal Box takes unexpected twists and turns. It feels like whatever they threw down in the studio – whatever guitar line or shrapnel of acid poetry from Lydon and yet it all worked in many moments of divine inspiration.
Graveyard is full of the ruling imagery of death and darkness – an instrumental that is full of rusty shapes and sounds and yet another door to crawl through for anyone seeking an alternative or a future that fulfilled punk’s promise of destroying rock n roll – few band took this trip – it’s a dangerous and lonely journey- even PiL themselves would only do one more album of this kind of no holds barred stuff. That was the underrated Flowers Of Romance, an album where the post Wobble line up replaced the bass with drums and created an album of astonishing pounding drums and tribal beats broken down into monolithic stabbing rhythms. A stunning work and well worth investigation – after that Lydon still made idiosyncratic albums with various line ups (one more with the great keith) but somehow reigned in from the adventure of the first three releases.
The suit is a sneer at the surrounding English suffocation of London – like a psychotic sneering Kinks taking a gimlet eye to the rate race, the getting on – getting by rush of surrounding life built around a bass line that seems to sneer as well. Stripped of guitar the song is truly effective as the bass line is so damn catchy and it curls endlessly across the soundscape and the leaden simple drums – a sketch, a quick jam but when you are on fire everything works.
Bad Baby is a return to the big sounding Pil and already we can hear Keith using the desk as an instrument again – the key to PiL was that it was a break away from the orthodoxy of punk and the ideas that things had to be ‘real’ and ‘played’. Here, anything was up for grabs and a track like this sees the desk twisting the drums into strange soundscapes – subtly but perfectly done as the song runs around another Wobble weird bass and strange rhythms and rhymes and sees Lydon at his most howling – they even bring a harmony vocal in which sounds even more unsettling. Socialist is another word instrumental – weird synth bleeps and a bass line a rush and the kick drum cranked to lead the track – the song sounds speeded up – a bit of mischief on the desk again.
In the future few bands would take this journey – perhaps the most notable example is Einsturzende Neubauten who took this trip to it’s logical conclusion. Metal Box remains a stunning moment. That eternal full stop. It sounds effortless but was fraught with danger and is still so full of ideas that you can still unwrap them all in your mind.